Right now, more than ever, we need to be in touch with ourselves—our bodies, minds, and everything in-between. Identifying what we're going through, whether it's feelings of anxiety, fear, negative thoughts, or unusual food cravings, can help us to figure out a better way to self-soothe and support those around us. We're all adjusting to the new normal different ways. It's a rollercoaster of emotions, whether you're on the front lines or in isolation at home.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, or 18.1% of the population every year. Dr Matteo Ria, a consultant psychologist at Pall Mall Medical explains, "We are facing an unfamiliar scenario and this crisis comes with challenges. It may lead to some individuals suffering from panic attacks, occasional low moods, anxiety, depression, or other emotional difficulties."
We spoke to six experts to help identify the emotions we may face in the coming weeks, how to identify them in ourselves and others, and how best to feel better. And while these nuggets of advice will help you now more than ever, you can also keep them in your emotional toolbox for years to come.
Scott McDougall, co-founder and registered manager of The Independent Pharmacy explains what anxiety is and how to deal with it.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s mental and physical response to stress. It generally manifests in the mind as an inability to concentrate, intrusive thoughts, an inability to relax, or obsessive thoughts over negative experiences from the past.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, sweating, loss of libido, and panic attacks, among others. These can be debilitating, preventing people from carrying out everyday tasks such as work or household chores.
The symptoms of anxiety often overlap with depression. For instance, a person with depression might experience the mental symptoms of anxiety accompanied by feelings of low self-worth, guilt, and thoughts of suicide.
What Can Trigger It?
Every individual has their own unique stressors that can trigger anxiety. These might be tied to certain experiences that happened in their past. For instance, if someone suffered from sexual assault, they might find certain sex scenes in films triggering. Other anxiety triggers, however, can include more general situations. Stressful relationships in which couples argue regularly, for instance, can make a person feel constantly on edge.
The current coronavirus crisis can also be a strong trigger for anxiety. As well as worrying about the pandemic itself, the feelings of isolation and claustrophobia as a result of the lockdown can also result in increased anxiety and panic attacks.
How to Self-Soothe
The physical symptoms of anxiety are easier to spot. Increased heart rate, sweating, sleeping difficulties, and so on are hard to ignore. However, many people with anxiety dismiss the mental symptoms of anxiety. It’s therefore important to monitor your behavior and identify any changes in contrast to how you were previously.
Exercise is perhaps the single best thing you can do for your anxiety. The benefits of a good workout are enormous, helping release endorphins that reduce stress levels and trigger feelings of positivity in the mind.
Use your daily outdoor time as an opportunity for a light jog. Even a gentle run to the shops is a good start, especially if you are new to exercising. There are also plenty of home workout videos available online.
Helpful Anxiety Apps
"I’d also recommend trying any of the below apps that offer short, easy and free exercises to help ease anxiety and panic," says Dr Ria.
- Oak – free breathing and meditation app with short and longer sessions.
- Stop, Think & Breathe – a free breathing app with mindful meditations and sleep sessions that are as long or short as you need.
- Headspace – a high-quality mindfulness app.
- Prune – a relaxing game inspired by Japanese cherry blossom, useful to use as a distraction or to help you wind down
- Calm – largely not free, however if you sign up for free and scroll through, you can access relaxing outdoor images, breathing exercises with relaxing backgrounds
- Antistress – a range of short and easy tasks to distract, allow you to ‘fiddle’ or ‘fidget’ (for example, popping bubble wrap is one of the games) and focus the mind.
How to Help Others With Anxiety
Spotting anxiety in another person can be difficult. They may be reluctant to address their anxiety, dismissing your concerns with humor or by changing the subject. However, there are signs you should look out for. They may burst into tears spontaneously, or they might be drinking alcohol more frequently. A sufferer might also be reluctant to partake in social activities, including those activities conducted via video chats.
If you are concerned about someone with anxiety, reach out to them gently. Avoid ambushing them. Instead, explain that you care for them and are concerned for their wellbeing. State that you have noticed changes in the behavior and want to address them.
Don’t tell your loved one they need to take action immediately. Simply ask if it’s possible to have a conversation about it and encourage them to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Put aside your concerns and let them talk—this is the first step towards dealing with their anxiety.
Right now, it's totally natural for us to feel fearful but we can't let fear rule our lives. Intuitive life coach William Michael Forbes talks us through how to take back control.
What Is Fear?
Fear is an emotion that is stimulated in one of two ways. When we allow fear to dominate our attention, it causes changes in our bodies that produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare us to deal with real or perceived threat. When we repeatedly dwell on fear, doubt and uncertainty, these chemicals can end up becoming addictive. With the ceaseless Coronavirus coverage keeping our emotions heightened and constantly stimulating our fear response, millions of people across the world are becoming addicted to these hormones and living in a state of fear.
What Can Trigger It?
Something outside of us can trigger that fear response, like a conflict we are witnessing or a television show in which the subject matter is fearful in nature. Or, when we allow our mind to focus on ideas, memories, or future possibilities that could cause us harm or suffering. As you may have noticed, the Coronavirus fits neatly into both of these categories.
Fear lowers the body’s natural ability to resist disease, and a person can feel increasingly vulnerable the longer the fear state remains.
How to Help
Fear lowers the body’s natural ability to resist disease, and a person can feel increasingly vulnerable the longer the fear state remains. Fear seems to bombard people ruthlessly through every television and phone screen, and many people turn to drugs, alcohol, caffeine, food, and/or sex to deflect their attention away from it. This is something you may notice in yourself or a loved one. Below, find the best ways to help with fearful feelings
- Breathe deeply. This will send a signal to your brain that it's time to relax.
- Avoid getting fixated on things around you that stimulate fear and your immune system will stay strong. For example, avoid watching or reading the news just before bed if you find it interferes with yours or a loved ones ability to sleep.
- Seek out guided meditation on YouTube, there are many to choose from and you can do this by yourself of with a loved one who may be struggling right now.
- Find situations, circumstances and social settings that stimulate a relaxing feeling.
Emotional Eating and Cravings
It's likely your regular routine has shifted dramatically. Without the typical daily routine, it's easy to find yourself craving food outside of your normal diet. Registered dietitian Rachel Swanson, founder of Rachel’s Rx, reveals how to eat healthy during self-isolation.
What Can Trigger It?
Our minds may be searching for a distraction and comfort to avoid dealing with our heightened emotional state. Constant cravings can also be triggered by fluctuating levels of blood sugar and insulin, in response to overconsumption of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates. Poor sleep quality can also increase cravings the following day and disrupt hunger-related hormones.
How to Help
Notice if you are using food for comfort. This can present itself through larger portion sizes, more frequent snacking, or increased intake of food that doesn't make your body feel good after the fact. Before you eat, ask yourself if you are truly hungry. Ask yourself if the food you're eating will make you feel good. Eating delicious foods is not the issue. It's how those foods make your body feel that may cause the problem. Bring awareness to your emotional state. Are you feeling anxious? Stressed? Lonely? Bored?
Change your coping mechanisms. Food is how we self-soothe, it comforts us. Luckily, there are alternative activities that are equally enjoyable, release feel-good hormones, and influence our state. These should become the new baseline when emotions start bubbling up (anxiety, stress, sadness, loneliness), and will comfort us instead.
- Practice self-compassion: Set a new mood by physically changing the atmosphere–light candles, turn on music, dim the lights and enjoy a hot bath.
- Channel the emotions: Emotions can be productive if they are used as a source of motivation to take action. There’s nothing like tackling a new project or side hustle when you are fired up.
- Action plan. Setting a goal, reinforcing it with visual reminders, then holding yourself accountable will help you get back on track. An example of what this might look like: Plan ahead what you will eat every day for one week. Print out your menu or physically write it out to serve as a visual reminder.
- Commit to a sweeping reform: If you make healthy options the default then you won’t have to rely on discipline in order to resist the food that isn't serving you.
Hypnotherapist Sarah Griffiths, who specializes in abuse and trauma, reveals what to do when a panic attack strikes and how to prevent them in future.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a false alarm. Your primal fear is trying to keep you safe.
What Can Trigger It?
There is always a root cause. The best thing to do is face your fears. If you avoid these thoughts and feelings you are sending a signal that there is something to be avoided. When you expose yourself to these fears, your body learns you’re safe and stops these triggers.
What to do While Your Having a Panic Attack
Your mind reacts to the words and images you feed it, so if you tell yourself you’re having a panic attack, your whole fear system will go into defense. Instead, sit, breathe deeply, and visualize calmness.
How to Prevent It
On a sticky note, write down “I am just going through a bad time”, or whatever works for you. Put it anywhere you might see it to reassure yourself. Whatever the mind is creating, the mind can uncreate.
Keep a journal of how your feeling and things that have seemed to trigger you, or encourage loved ones struggling with increasing panic attacks to do this. Notice what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling and make a note of them. It will reveal the common denominators. You’ll then be able to collect your thoughts, organize your day, and feel more in control.